The Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center is seen on Tuesday, January 17, 2023.
The Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center is seen on Tuesday, January 17, 2023. Credit: Stephanie Casanova / Signal Cleveland

The Cuyahoga County Public Defender’s Office will be assigned more juvenile cases after judges agreed to a new case assignment system earlier this month. 

The change was outlined in a letter that Administrative Judge Thomas O’Malley sent to Cullen Sweeney, the chief public defender. The public defender’s office currently handles about 25% of all juvenile delinquency cases; the rest are assigned to private attorneys. The new assignment system would bring that up to around 40%, Sweeney said. 

The recent changes were in response to a proposal that Sweeney sent to O’Malley in September 2022. O’Malley told Sweeney the judges would consider it in the new year, once two new judges joined the court. 

The court did not agree to all the changes the public defender’s office proposed. 

Cullen Sweeney is the chief public defender of the Cuyahoga County Public Defender’s Office. Photo from 2022. Credit: Cuyahoga County Public Defender's Office

Sweeney’s proposal included assigning all cases where a child was housed in the Juvenile Justice Center unless there were conflicts. Conflicts could include a case where a public defender already represents the victim. The office also can’t represent more than one child accused of the same crime because each child could be a potential witness in the other case, Sweeney said. 

The proposal also suggested changes that would increase the amount of bindover cases assigned to the public defender’s office. Those are cases where a child is transferred to adult court. 

Cases where children are detained in the Juvenile Detention Center and bindover cases were not mentioned in O’Malley’s recent letter. Signal Cleveland reached out to the court to find out if judges will address these parts of the proposal. The court did not respond before the time of publication. 

Sweeney said he and his staff believe there are “systemic benefits” to the public defender’s office handling such cases.

He said his staff will continue to talk with court administration about the other aspects of their proposal once they see how the new change is implemented. 

“With the recent increase, we can hopefully better evaluate the impact of our representation and make that case to the court in the future,” Sweeney said. 

Criminal Justice Reporter (she/her)
Stephanie, who covered criminal justice and breaking news at the Chicago Tribune, is a bilingual journalist with a passion for storytelling that is inclusive and reflects the diversity of the communities she covers. She has been a reporter and copy editor for local newspapers in South Dakota, Kansas and Arizona. Stephanie is also a Maynard 200 alumni, a Maynard Institute for Journalism Education training program for journalists of color that focuses on making newsrooms more equitable, diverse and anti-racist.